Valentin Lopez: Stewardship as a Way of Life

Valentin Lopez is and has always been a steward, selflessly caring for people and nature. From looking after his disabled grandmother and raising his children as a single parent to the restoration of indigenous landscapes, Chairman Lopez exemplifies an intentional sense of care, reciprocity, and respect toward others. He grew up in agrarian Santa Clara County, before the development of Silicon Valley. Like his ancestors, his upbringing generated an intimate and lifelong relationship with the coastal California landscape. 

As a young boy, Valentin traveled south to Swanson Ranch in Hollister to pick and process apricots with his community. Families set up ramshackle housing on these ranches with the same trays used for drying apricots. While men headed into the orchards to harvest golden Blenheim apricots, women and children worked in the processing shed, Valentin was tasked to help his maternal grandmother, Josefa, who had become blind. As she sliced each fruit, she would pass it down to him, who placed each half on the row, face up. As they worked together, Josefa passed down wisdom about their family history, a glimpse of an era from generations before, where Native people lived freely on their own land. She would remind Valentin to always say he was Mexican, a lesson instilled by previous generations during the California Indian Genocide, when Native peoples had bounties placed upon their heads. He came from a family of sheep shearers, carpenters, and farmworkers. Most elders were illiterate, and as a child he would assist his uncles to add up their work dues for shearing sheep. Often, farm owners swindled labor, but with the help of young Valentin’s calculations, they received proper wages. 

Although school was difficult for Valentin, where high achievement classes were typically segregated, limiting his academic opportunities, he excelled in sports. A burly 6-foot-tall high schooler with hair that added a few extra inches to his height, he set records for the long jump and triple jump. His dedication to training gained him a scholarship to Sacramento State University, where he excelled. That work ethic propelled him to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree.

Connections Unearthed 

During college, he drove down the Central Valley for family gatherings, sitting with Grandma Josefa, now a double amputee, in her stuffy bedroom. Known in her family to be bright and positive, her good spirits inspired Valentin. While his family spent time outside socializing and cooking, he stayed indoors where Josefa shared stories, and they spoke about current events playing on her small radio. Valentin became more interested in his identity and questioned elders about stories they remembered from past generations. Josefa provided stories about the California missions but not the cultural practices, language, or tribes from which she had descended.

After graduating college in 1975, Valentin assisted farmworkers with their collective bargaining agreements. He also taught remedial English at Sacramento City and American River community colleges. He gained expertise in testmaking and statistical analysis. Soon thereafter, he landed a job with the California Highway Patrol creating tests for prospective officers. His career at the CHP lasted 30 years, where he became a well-respected commander, while raising his two sons and two stepchildren. 

Meanwhile, family members began uncovering more about their Indigenous identity. They learned they were Mutsun-speaking Ohlone, descending from families taken to missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. Cousins, aunties, and uncles began sharing with relatives, providing opportunities to connect with their culture. Realizing historical injustices that nearly erased their Tribe, community leaders prepared a petition to seek federal recognition, first establishing a constitution, electing council, and crafting membership criteria. One elder, Reuben Luna, shared cultural knowledge with Valentin, and was the first to tell him that they were Mutsun people. The regular updates that Luna passed on left an impression on him, and he shared what he learned with other family members. 

The Rebirth of Land Stewardship

In 1993, Valentin met with Tribal elders, telling them he was ready to learn from them to help their community. He began to learn about Mutsun culture and became a dancer, a sacred obligation and lifelong commitment. Inspired by his dedication, Elders came to Valentin and asked him to run for Tribal Chair. He ran for Chair in 2003 and was unopposed. Valentin assumed an obligation to be the spokesperson for the ancestors, the living community, and all future generations. As Chair, elders offered their guidance, telling Chairman Lopez and council in 2006 that they must work to take care of their ancestral territory. Their direction was perplexing. With no federal recognition and no rights to access their ancestral land, the vast majority of Tribal members living outside of costly Amah Mutsun territory, and limited knowledge of cultural stewardship, taking care of the land felt inconceivable. 

Six months later, the new superintendent of Pinnacles National Monument Eric Brunnerman contacted Valentin, inviting the Tribe to collaborate with the park to restore Native ecosystems. Chairman Lopez and Tribal Council deliberated over the proposed partnership, unsure of what knowledge they could offer, but they decided to collaborate to relearn traditional ecological ways. The partnership was a success and laid a foundation for similar collaborations with UC Santa Cruz, Sempervirens Fund, and State Parks. 

The news spread about the Tribe’s dedication to take care of their ancestral territory. California State Parks and archaeologists from UC Berkeley came to Valentin proposing an archaeological study at Quiroste Valley in southwestern San Mateo County to uncover past Native land management practices, food systems, and population patterns. The Tribe agreed, and the project revealed important details of a history of land stewardship where Native people were integral components of a healthy environment, a counter to perceptions of California Indians as poor resource managers. Tribal members learned how their ancestors shaped the coastlines with fire, a technique dismissed by European settlers and also banned in California. For Valentin and other members involved, findings connected them to their culture and cemented their commitment to restoring these ways. 

In 2013, Tribal leadership created the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, a non-profit tasked with facilitating the Tribe’s involvement in environmental stewardship. Central tenets include  protecting cultural and sacred sites, collaborative research, education, and having a stewardship corps to take care of the land.  As president of the Land Trust, Valentin has grown the organization to support dozens of Tribal families in their journey to reconnect to culture and heal from the effects of intergenerational trauma prevalent within the Tribe. The Land Trust quickly formed the Native Stewardship Corps, a program employing younger adults and youth to restore traditional practices on culturally significant landscapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, down to Pinnacles National Park. Valentin cultivates and nurtures every program within the Land Trust, leading talking circles, language lessons, and cultural events for the entire community. He reminds members, “Creator gave us the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things, and that obligation has not been rescinded.”Valentin feels an obligation to be a steward of the land and fulfills it through the Land Trust. 

Tribal Wellness: A Path Toward Healing

An important initiative instituted by Chairman Lopez in 2009 was bi-monthly Tribal wellness meetings. Sitting in a talking circle to signify equality, conversations address historic trauma still felt by the community today. Guided by Valentin, Tribal Elder Denise Espinosa, and Tribal psychiatrist Donna Schindler, meetings address restoring Tribal identity and spirituality. Initial discussions included sensitive subjects such as addiction, depression, suicide, and low self-esteem. Next, the community discussed violence, incarceration, and poverty within the Tribe. An important lesson about instilling in youth the ability to have healthy relationships led to a broader realization: healthy relationships take two healthy partners, and partnerships between the tribe and non-Tribal organizations are no different. The Tribe only partners with entities that acknowledge the true history of colonization. As Chairman Lopez states, “Although we do not hold non-Native individuals accountable for historical injustices, we ask that they recognize how they have benefitted from this tragic history and have a responsibility to help Indigenous peoples heal and recover.” Ongoing wellness meetings, currently held on Zoom video calls, undo colonial legacies felt within the community, and exemplify a path toward healing for others to follow.  

Protect Juristac: Campaigning for the Tribe’s Most Sacred Land

A proposed sand and gravel mining operation at an area known to the Tribe as “Juristac,” or place of the Big Head dance, spurred Valentin to launch a campaign to deny the project. The Chairman has spoken at hundreds of events, including the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, sharing how his ancestors had ceremonies in these hills, and how it still holds the echoes of song, dance, and prayer. The mining would destroy that legacy, and future generations would never have the opportunity to restore prayer and ceremony at Juristac. 

Valentin has been a steward of cultural knowledge, spending hours with elders and listening with his heart. He has been a steward of the environment, restoring human relationships with non-human kin and healing through their connection. Valentin honors the practices of his ancestors which keeps the interests of future generations in mind. He dreams of a future where the wounds of colonization fully heal. In every way, Valentin exemplifies how to take care of Mother Earth and all living things. 

Alexii Sigona is a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and a leader of the Amah Mutsun youth group. He is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley where his research focuses on collaborative stewardship, access to traditional foods, and healing within his community. He is grateful to Chairman Lopez for supporting the connection to Amah Mutsun culture. Alexii is also a 2019 Community Advocates Leadership Academy graduate, a member of the Green Foothills Advisory Board, and involved in the Protect Juristac campaign.

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